Trials and Joys of a Large Family

‘Are these all yours? How do you handle it? You're done now, right? You've got your hands full!’

If you're a parent in a family with more than three children, you've heard those questions. And worse. From complete strangers. Everywhere you go as a family.

If the unwanted attention and intrusions into your personal life have you and your spouse down, take heart. Borrow a page from the playbook of Catholic families who are turning the negative, secular hen-pecking into opportunities for joyful Christian witnessing.

Take Michael and Maria O'Rourke of Indianapolis. When out with their four boys and two girls, they're always well-armed with big smiles and ready-to-use positive comments.

“We have these quick one-liners,” says Michael. For instance, when strangers commonly say, “You've got your hands full,” they flash their pearly whites and answer: “Yes, full of love. And we love it!”

To the pointed interrogator demanding to know “how many more” they're going to have, their standard reply is: “We're leaving it up to God.”

Maria says the comments aren't all bad anyway — and the few encouraging words more than compensate for the many disparaging. “One Sunday a lady behind us at Mass said, ‘It's always such a delight to see you at Mass. We feel like we've won the lottery when your family sits in front of us.’”

Traveling together, the family never goes unnoticed. “We have the opportunity to preach the gospel of life just by being there,” says Michael.

Mark Fiorentino of Flowery Branch, Ga., welcomes the opportunity to show off his growing family unit among the acquaintances he's with nearly every day: his co-workers. When people notice the picture in his office of himself, his wife Nancy and their five children — and find out he's Catholic — “they'll ask questions and, kind of joking, always come to the Church's teaching on sexuality,” he says. One day, with a group of 10 workers, “my Catholic sexuality became the topic of conversation.”

“I'm not afraid to talk about God,” Fiorentino says. “They may agree or disagree, since a lot are considering having more pets and animals than children,” he says, “but at least they walk out with what the Catholic Church really teaches: You shouldn't separate the sexual act from the procreative act.”

Wife Nancy's “most memorable comment” came from a checkout lady in a grocery store. “She went off on how she hated children, how all children were brats and how she hoped she never had any,” Nancy recalls. The woman railed on in front of the children. But the placid mother disarmed the clerk.

“In a calm tone, I told her my children were not at all like that,” recalls Nancy. “They have manners.” Taken aback, the clerk said, “Oh I didn't mean to offend you.”

On the other hand, “There are people who pat me on the back and congratulate me,” she mentions. “One said, ‘I have seven and I wish I had four more.’”

When Father Leo Patalinghug at St. John Church in Westminster, Md., was looking for married couples to work with pre-Cana marriage-preparation groups, he found the majority to be happy, joyful people who love the married life. “They were parents of large families,” he adds. “I was edified.”

The size of the families they met shocked some engaged couples. “Today's young couples are trained by society that children are an inconvenience,” says Father Patalinghug, but the example of the mentor parents “showed them you can be joyful; there's a correlation between happy families and children.”

Yes, there are practical inconveniences to deal with. Take finding a hotel that treats big families as a single unit — if you can find any. On a visit to western New York, the Fiorentinos found two major chains that wanted to split the family into two rooms for $200. What did they do? Kept looking. “By the grace of God,” says Mark, we found an older (chain motel) that put us in one room and charged us $75. There are still glimmers of hope.”

Matthew and Maureen Skurski in Pleasant Prairie, Wisc., are parents of five boys and five girls, ranging in age from 1 to 21. Maureen gets the regular remarks with a twist. People size the children up and down, then ask, “Do you all have the same last name?” What they're suggesting, Maureen says, is that one of the Skurskis must have had some of the kids in a previous marriage.

Her response to unsolicited questions and comments is usually a subtle expression communicating that she needs more patience with adults who say such things than she needs with her children.

And she lets her family's love for one another do the talking. “When you're trying to raise your kids Catholic, people expect them to be saints,” she adds. “Being human, they're saints in the making, but not there yet. God didn't bring us together to be a perfect family, but one willing to forgive and share and grow and learn together in love.”

In Nashville, Tenn., Bill and Marie Bellet are parents of seven boys and one girl, ages 3 to 15. As a popular Catholic singer-songwriter, Marie uses a unique way to answer people's challenges at the same time she bolsters other big families. She examines society's attitudes in her songs such as “What I Wanted to Say,” in which she deals with what she later thought of telling people in grocery lines who questioned the number and spacing of her children, especially when she was pregnant.

For her it's a moment for witness. “When our culture sees someone willing to take a risk and trust in love and life,” she says, “that's a witness to hope, a sign of contradiction.”

Bellet believes a sense of humor and play is essential. “To have a large family is to be playful and take risks and to laugh,” she says. “The kids keep you playful, and that approach to life brings me a lot of happiness. It's part of the sign of contradiction.” And it often melts people's challenges. “It's what happens naturally with the kids.”

When someone in the grocery line has nostrils flaring and a cynical look, Bellet puts her readymade plan into action. “I sometimes ask them to help me with one of them. It actually makes them interact with the kids,” she says. “I know they're going to get a kick out of it.” Most of the time it works. Elderly folks and men melt. Well-dressed women are the hardest to convince.

“If the child is asking for candy and you say No, a lot of the things the kids say are funny,” Bellet notices. Especially when she asks older siblings to help. “What gets laughs from the people,” she says, “is to see the older kids tell the younger ones why they can't have it.”

She finds the “audience” takes its cue from you, the parent, if you're watching the playfulness and the humor of your children in a loving way.

“If you really look at this as part of your apostolate, you know those exchanges are coming and you can be prepared for them,” says Bellet. “For a lot of people it's their only contact with big families or children.”

And, quite possibly, their only chance to hear the gospel of life preached without anyone having to say a word about it.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

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